Kyle Roerink and Steve Erickson: The tale of two pipelines for desert cities

(Colton Lochhead | Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP) In this Nov. 12, 2019 photo, Delaine Spilsbury, an elder of the Ely Shoshone tribe, holds up a Confederated Tribes of Goshute Reservation flag during a demonstration protesting the Southern Nevada Water Authority's effort to build a pipeline to pump water from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas.

Nevadans and Utahns won a major economic and environmental victory in mid-April that will help protect air quality along the Wasatch Front and the Great Basin’s fragile water supply –– including Great Salt Lake.

After weeks of deliberation, the Southern Nevada Water Authority declined to appeal a resounding rejection of its Las Vegas pipeline project by a Nevada District Court – essentially ending the 14-year legal fight over water applications in Nevada’s Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar Valleys (Spring Valley’s water ultimately flows into Great Salt Lake).

Since the project’s inception in 1989, opponents have known what the judge affirmed: The there is no surplus water for export.

At the center of the fight against the “Las Vegas Water Grab” was Snake Valley, a water-scarce basin shared by Nevada and Utah. Rural officials in both states, Salt Lake County, the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and a host of other tribal, environmental and agricultural interests worked to achieve this outcome.

Since 2006, groups such as the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake, Utah Rivers Council, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Audubon Council and Friends of Great Salt Lake filed protests, held hearings and engaged the public.

A critical turning point was Gov. Gary Herbert’s 2013 decision not to sign the proposed Utah-Nevada agreement divvying up the groundwater in Snake Valley’s shared aquifer.

Had Utah capitulated, we may not have prevailed.

While we are relieved at the legal outcome, there is unfinished business. SNWA’s Snake Valley applications –– worth more than 16.5 billion gallons annually –– still remain on the books, along with 40 billion gallons worth of applications in other Nevada communities.

SNWA still owns a ranching operation near the Utah border and maintains an application for the pipeline’s right of way across Bureau of Land Management lands. Goshute and Shoshone sacred sites remain unprotected for the long-term. A stipulated agreement still muzzles federal agencies from speaking out against SNWA.

In the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, there’s no water to waste — especially in an unprecedented era of drought. While Utah’s population continues to boom, its groundwater supply is dwindling. Half of Nevada’s groundwater supply is already accounted for or over allocated.

The Great Basin Water Network vows to finish what we started to protect the limited water resources in the region. Part of that continued effort will be speaking up against sprawl development and water waste.

As Vegas’ population boomed in the 1990s and 2000s, its water officials used hyperbole and specious science to tout the need for importing water.

In recent years, however, SNWA almost cut its Colorado River water use in half as the population grew by more than 600,000 people. Now, its planning to do what we’ve been imploring for years, implement more conservation and undertake collaborations with other Colorado River communities. That’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly than a $15.5 billion pipeline.

Now, Utah communities must follow SNWA’s lead.

Instead, St. George is repeating SNWA’s past mistakes, clamoring for the $1 billion Lake Powell Pipeline to send 28 billion gallons of Colorado River water each year to supplement its Virgin River Basin allocation.

The community would be wise to spend its money and political energy on conservation and common-sense community planning — considering that in 2018 its per capita water-use eclipsed the rates in Las Vegas, Tucson and Phoenix.

The Las Vegas Pipeline fight — and all Utah has done to thwart it –– should be a lesson for both states. For rural and urban communities to survive in our arid region, both pipelines must have similar fates.

Kyle Roerink, the Executive Director of Great Basin Water Network, lives in Reno

Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, lives in Reno, Nevada.

Steve Erickson, Salt Lake City, has been a volunteer and consultant with GBWN since 2005.